Australia will implement an anti-racism strategy from July 2012. In this post I sketch out some ideas as to how applied sociology might contribute to this process. The 2011 Mapping Social Cohesion Report shows that 14% of all Australians have experienced racial or religious discrimination. Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke (right) noted to SBS Newsthat government and other areas of public service do not reflect Australia’s multicultural make up:
“We know that there’s an unconscious bias that exists in selection processes in employment, and you would have to say: ‘Where is the multicultural colour and look and style in the boardrooms and in positions of seniority across both government and the public service?’”
The survey is sociologically interesting – most of the questions are focused on individual experiences of racism and individual responses. For example: “Have you experienced racism? Did you speak up or take action? What did you do?” The survey also asks “Who is responsible for addressing racism in Australia?” I see that these questions are important to ask but they also reflect the individual approach to racism that Australia and some other countries adopt. Individuals are expected to sort out racism at the interpersonal level, but individual experiences of racism are perceived as being separate from institutional racism.
Australia no longer has in place policies of racial segregation as it did for Australian Aboriginal and Indigenous communities, which were in place up to the mid-1960s. This included separate drinking water sources, social clubs and spaces, as well as not giving Indigenous Australians the clear right to vote until 1967 (via a referendum). Australia no longer practices overt discrimination in its official immigration programme (as it did during the “White Australia Policy” which ended in the mid-1970s). Yet a plethora of social science studies show that various forms of discrimination persist in schools, public service providers and in workplaces.
I see that sociology could make a powerful contribution to anti-racist submissions being sought, by addressing the compartmentalisation of individual, group and institutional racism. For example, Philomena Essed’s argues that the “everyday racism” that people encounter during their routine social interactions with other people show the link between individual and institutional racism. Seemingly innocuous, casual exchanges, such as continually being asked “Where are you from?” because you look “different”, not take place in an anti-racist setting. (I’ve written about this phenomena here.) Anti-racist strategies often leave it up to individuals and groups to sort out everyday racism. They encourage empathy and interpersonal “tolerance” of differences. Empirical studies show that such strategies do not work in the long-term. Instead, institutional changes are needed. This certainly involves stronger sanctions for the media, schools, service providers and workplaces that allow racist practices to continue at the interpersonal level.
I’ll be watching the development of the National Anti-Racism strategy with keen interest. In the mean time, I would urge applied sociologists in Australia to lend their expertise to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission’s public consultation process. Let the rest of us know your thoughts on the process!